Andrew Slater and Jakob Dylan had been tossing around ideas for their next project, something the two have been doing for over 20 years ever since Slater produced The Wallflowers’ first album in 1992 when something caught the music producer’s eye as Jacques Demy’s “Model Shop” had popped up on TCM.
“This film came on and I was looking at it and first of all, it looked beautiful. I had never seen it before,” recalls Slater of laying eyes on the sun-soaked romance. “There was Gary Lockwood. And we started to see the streets of L.A. and all these places that we would go [today] and this time of innocence, and we started to think about the beginnings of the music.”
Instead of making a new album, the two turned their attention to making a movie on their own – though naturally, they ultimately did both with “Echo in the Canyon,” a unique musical journey through Los Angeles, or more specifically Laurel Canyon where the houses that lingered in the mountains above the Sunset Strip were filled with sonic experimentation by the musicians that made their way west from the folk scene in New York during the 1960s. New bands such as The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield began to take shape as the new sound did and Slater and Dylan track the way in which they inspired one another and how that influence continues to carry on today as Dylan puts on a concert, bringing together the likes of Fiona Apple, Beck, Regina Spector and Cat Power, among others to reinterpret some of the era’s biggest hits.
The film exuberantly bridges the gap between generations musically, bringing together artists from different eras to reflect a continuum of musical ideas and innovation, full of fascinating tidbits such as Tom Petty recalling, in what would be his final interview, how he won “Pet Sounds” from a call-in radio contest and Brian Wilson remembering how he picked up what he knew about violin arrangements from Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin. But in intercutting between clips of “Model Shop” with modern-day cruising around Los Angeles, “Echo in the Canyon” also shows how much and how little the city itself has changed in the past half-century where for as much redevelopment has occurred, the streets still hold the promise of new corners to turn onto. With the film hitting theaters following its premiere last fall at the Los Angeles Film Fest, Slater spoke about putting a new hat on of being a filmmaker after a previous life as the president of Capitol Records, following his own inspiration wherever it led in making “Echo in the Canyon” and preserving this history for posterity.
When you first had the idea for this, was it all intertwined where you’d have an album and a concert to build a film around?
I started out by trying to make a record of those songs [from the ‘60s L.A. music scene] and the record led me to asking questions about the story behind those songs and that led us to the bands, which led us to the place they all lived and I said, “Let’s go and find out why these were written, if we can?” And let’s make something out of it. That was the genesis for it. I am a record maker. That’s what I started doing, which was looking at songs and arranging them and finding a way to interpret music that I loved that brought me to California.
I’ve [also] always had an interest in film and in photography, so given the opportunity, I started with the idea of making something larger in film about this period in music. I actually went to [other] filmmakers to see if they would make this because I had this treatment, and they didn’t really want to do it. And somebody said, “Well, why don’t you do it? You’ve spent your life hiring directors to make music videos and you’ve been around film.” I [still] thought, I can’t do this. But I was a journalist. I wrote about music in my early twenties and [other people] said, “Sure, you can [do it]. You have the idea. You know what you like to look at cinematically.” So I got somebody to budget it and somebody was brave enough to allow me to do it.
Something it articulates so well is this idea of influence between musicians and between a place and its residents. Since that isn’t necessarily tangible or easily conveyed verbally, was it difficult to show?
It’s like “A Moveable Feast” – Hemingway – you read the collection of stories and you get the feeling of being in Paris. It’s not really specifically linear. So my idea for the film was more about the echo than Laurel Canyon, but to illustrate that was hard because each one of the subjects in the film was a documentary in and of itself. Brian Wilson is a documentary. Michelle Phillips in The Mamas and the Papas is a documentary. The Beatles is a documentary. So being able to use the songs as an entry point to get into the bands and then the bands as a way to show you the echo of ideas and the reverberation of all that creativity was challenging. Then [we had] to show you that the whole thing was inspired by this film [“Model Shop”] and mirror Jakob’s journey with the character in the film’s journey – that was all in my head and having to put that together took a lot of time. Making it work so that the viewer is engaged throughout is the trick.
Was Jakob up automatically for being an onscreen guide, interviewing other musicians?
I think his DNA and his own accomplishments give him the right to lead anything in song and so much of the documentaries that I see involve either voiceover and music or just the straight talking head and I wanted to capture the conversation between two artists because that’s where I felt the intimate details of the subject would be uncovered. Jakob, in his own right, represents another generation of songwriters whose work is influenced by some of the music that’s in the film – clearly, the Byrds – so I thought he was the perfect person to do that.
The subjects also seem to come alive because of the settings they do their interviews in – did you have much say in where you’d set up?
One of the [other] things I didn’t like about the documentaries that I had seen is that you’re going through the story, you see the [interview subject] and he’s shot with a C300 or something and the angle is not the best. He’s got a potted plant behind his head and there’s one light and they don’t look good – and I love these people that wrote these songs. Some of them are my friends and some of them I know and I wanted them to look good, but I also wanted the settings in which you’d see them to have some relevance to their own contribution to when they made music or how they made music. John Sebastian’s on a rooftop in New York in lower Manhattan – that’s at the Albert Hotel where he lived – and David Crosby is at a location that I found in Summerland, which is close to where his family’s from in Santa Barbara, but it gives you the sense of California and the expansiveness of it and that sense of being the ultimate horizontal landscape. So [we] scouted [those locations] – not by a location scout because we were on a small budget, but by the [cinematographer] and me and the producer in my car.
Obviously, you know this history so well, but was there anything that comes up in conversation that changes the direction of the film?
When we started, I thought the best story to tell would’ve been the migration of these artists from the East Coast to the West [because] the rigidity of the folk scene maybe would not have given way to the electrification of folk music much like it happened in California with The Byrds, just because the sense of freedom and the feeling that anything is possible here is an undertow of our whole city. But I found the real story to pursue was the exchange of these ideas in Laurel Canyon and the recording of these songs in these studios that existed here and still exist here – and they may not be here in 10 years because of the expansion of Hollywood. The great recording studios of New York are gone – there are still some, but Columbia and Atlantic are gone, and in L.A., a single story building on Sunset may not be there that long because somebody is going to come along and say, “Hey, this property is worth $50 million. Do you want to sell this?” So I wanted to capture the beauty of those rooms where Jakob and I have worked and where a lot of these records we love were made.
Were there things about just being in the room that you learned how the music was made?
Not really for me because my life as a record producer led me to learn what was used and how – what echo chamber was used on a voice or which compressor was used on a certain microphone, so I spent a lot of hours dissecting how things were made, what the tools were and what the gear was. So none of it was a surprise in that sense. But I was trying to shoot the rooms in a way where it didn’t look like a sterile environment or a laboratory where things were happening, but something that was warm and inviting – a place where creativity could flourish and hopefully document those places before they were gone.
What’s it been like putting this out into the world?
When you make a record, you never get to be in someone’s room when they’re listening to it to see the effect you’re having on other people. So in making this film and putting it out, you get to sit in the back of the theater and get to see people’s reaction right there to the thing that you made and the fact that I can sit back there and people are filled with this music and filled with a nice moment outside of the vicissitudes of their daily life is incredibly inspiring and humbling at the same time. I just feel so fortunate to be able to witness that.
“Echo in the Canyon” opens on May 24th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark and New York at the Landmark at 57 West.